In 2009, Bulleit Rye was my drink of choice, and I could be counted on for a bottle at most gatherings. One evening — someone’s birthday party, I think — I overheard a guy I knew from college ask about the bottle of “Bull-ay” in the kitchen.
I wonder what that is, I thought.
Then someone else pointed at me, and this guy, let’s call him Steve, picked up the bottle I’d brought and asked, “Can I have a shot of the Bull-ay?”
“Of course, man. It’s Bull-it, but yeah, go ahead.”
At some point much later in the evening, once we were much deeper into that bottle of rye, Steve asked if he could have a shot of Bull-ay one too many times. “Hey asshole, if you can’t pronounce it right, you’re not allowed to have anymore,” I informed him.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “It’s Bull-ay. It’s French.”
To which I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
Bulleit is made, like all bourbons, in Kentucky. The family has been distilling there since the early 1800s. And when asked at the San Francisco Whiskey Expo in the early aughts how to pronounce the name of his distillery, Tom Bulleit, the founder of Bulleit Bourbon, is reported to have replied, “Just like the ammunition.”
So Steve, or whatever you name is, I hope you’ve since learned the error of your ways.
Now, Bulleit is probably one of the more egregious — and in my opinion, unforgivable — examples of a mispronounced spirit. After all, it’s bourbon. You can’t get much more American than that when it comes to alcohol. (Well, okay, the colonies were distilling rum way before anyone was making or drinking brown liquor stateside, but bourbon can’t be called bourbon if it’s produced outside of the U.S.) But there are plenty of other spirits, wines and liqueurs where a garbled pronunciation is more or less acceptable (the first time around at least). Such as…
What It Is: An artichoke-based Italian digestif most commonly served neat
The Wrong Way to Say It: See-nar, Ch-nar and Sigh-nar
The Right Way to Say It: Chee-NAR
Talking Points: I get it — The C-Y combination at the beginning of a word isn’t a thing we do here. In fact, all frames of reference for how to make this sound live at the end of women’s names (e.g., Stacy) and adjectives (e.g., racy), and it’s always a cee. But don’t sweat it: Nobody says Cynar right the first time they encounter it. Best to just point, and let your bartender help you out.
What It Is: An Italian maker of fortified wines such as Cocchi Americano and Cocchi Rosa
The Wrong Way to Say It: Co-CHEE and CAH-chee
The Right Way to Say It: Co-key
Talking Points: The C-H in Italian is always a hard kuh. Admittedly, I’m not a linguist, so I can’t say anything to explain Italian pronunciation other than it just is, but I can say that people mess this up on the regular. (The same goes for Maraschino liqueur.)
What It Is: Orange-flavored liqueur most commonly found in margaritas
The Wrong Way to Say It: Cure-a-cow, Cure-ah-cow, Cure-AH-cow and Cah-rah-cus
The Right Way to Say It: Cure-ah-sow
Talking Points: A true curaçao, as opposed to triple sec or an orange liqueur, is a bit tart. It’s made from the bitter peels of the Laraha fruit, native only to the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which until 2010, was one of five island territories that made up the Netherlands Antilles. You can thank the native islanders for this spirit, but definitely blame the Dutch for its pronunciation. Also: Caracas is the capital of Venezuela.
What It Is: Medium-bodied red wine most often produced in Argentina (although the Malbec region of France also, obviously, vints this wine as well)
The Wrong Way to Say It: M-AL-bec
The Right Way to Say It: Maul-bec
Talking Points: This one’s just basic Latin, folks: There are no hard a’s.
What It Is: A brewery located in Petaluma, California, known for its irreverent labeling, its flagship IPA and the adorable dog on its packaging
The Wrong Way to Say It: Lah-GOON-Eat-Us and Lah-GOON-Tas
The Right Way to Say It: LAH-Goo-NEE-Tas
Talking Points: In the same way Malbec demands a soft a because it’s originally a French word, Lagunitas, the California town that originally housed the brewery (they outgrew their original space and moved to Petaluma in 1994, a year after they first launched), is named after a South American city: Lagunita. Again, no hard a’s.
What It Is: A rocky island off the coast of southern coast of Scotland known for producing super peaty Scotches
The Wrong Way to Say It: Is-Lay and I-Slay
The Right Way to Say It: EYE-Lay
Talking Points: There are rumored to be more sheep than humans living on Islay, but that’s no excuse for butchering the island’s name and it’s main alcoholic export. Although, if you’re in the habit of saying I-Slay, I hope no one corrects you.
What It Is: A highly mentholated Italian digestif popular in San Francisco, Argentina, and throughout the American service industry
The Wrong Way to Say It: Fur-NAY
The Right Way to Say It: Fur-NET
Talking Points: Not everything that ends with a T and isn’t from an English-speaking country gets the French accent treatment, friends.
What It Is: Champagne. Expensive. French
The Wrong Way to Say It: Mo-AY
The Right Way to Say It: Mo-ET
Talking Points: The letter following the umlaut (i.e., the little dots, like in Mötley Crüe) is always pronounced. You’re welcome.
What It Is: A very lightly aged cognac
The Wrong Way to Say It: Ahm-bray
The Right Way to Say It: Ahm-bra
Talking Points: I, too, was guilty of Anglicizing Ahm-bra into Amb-ray for quite some time, but after the 2016 elections, we can’t have people walking to bars ordering “One of those hombre cognacs.”
What It Is: A distiller of absinthe
The Wrong Way to Say It: Per-NOD
The Right Way to Say It: Per-NODE
Talking Points: Let’s hear it once more for funky French pronunciation rules. However, let’s truly give it up for the French for giving us Pernod in the first place, and Pernod for giving us absinthe. So a perfectly enunciated toast to him, to France and to you — especially you, since you’ll never mispronounce a drink order again.